Building a country brand is harder than destroying it

A strong country brand must attract businesses and investments, promote the goals of the tourism industry, promote public diplomacy, support the interests of exporting industries, strengthen national identity and increase self-respect.
(Perspective Magazine)
(Perspective Magazine)
Miša Lukić, President of the Management Board, Leo Burnett 

What country is the world’s top brand? Why? 

According to the prominent Anholt-Gfk Roper ’Nations Brands Index,’ the world’s top nation brand is the USA. The USA is a megabrand and, as any other country megabrand, has evolved over centuries, shaped by wars, political influence, by economic growth and power, famous sons and daughters, by a rich cultural background, by the brands it exports, by versatile tourism supply, etc. All these factors contributed over time to the nation’s brand, but even more important the USA continuously takes care and invests in their reputation. Some of great American commercial brands have done a marvelous job in sketching the outlines of Brand America: wealth, independence, ruggedness, dependability, individualism, youthfulness, fun and so on. 

Also, USA governments have always seen America’s cultural output as one of the ’soft’ techniques for building the national reputation. Hollywood movies could get away with some fairly explicit celebration of American values. One reason why culture works so well in building brand for countries is that people aren’t as suspicious of it as they are of commercial messages. They watch movies, relax their vigilance and don’t look for hidden agendas. On other hand, it’s certainly easier for countries that are not in the mainstream of global politics to achieve good brand rankings because negative brand attributes nearly always accrue to first-world countries as a result of unpopular foreign policies, America, as one of the counties that regularly plays a key role in world affairs, will find this kind of negative equity hard to avoid completely. 

Despite the economic pitfalls and negatively perceived international politics, the USA remains the top brand. This is so because the USA has been for years far ahead of every other nation, and it would take a long time to destroy all the dimensions that have made America a strong nation brand. 

How does a country build a brand out of its name? 

The process of building a country brand starts with defining a preliminary vision. The next step is forming an action group. Then, professional qualitative and quantitative research is carried out to find out how the nation brand is perceived internationally, by the target markets and by its own people. The research findings are analyzed and experts, national key players and stakeholders consulted. 

Then in the strategy-building phase the core idea and the identity of the nation brand are formed, along with the umbrella brand and sub-brands (tourism, investment, public diplomacy and trade and export). A good communication system during the whole process is vital. The implementation phase itself will require many years, and the process should never stop. 

Building a country brand differs significantly from branding consumer goods. Country branding is not an advertising spot on CNN. It’s not about listing the geographical advantages of a country. The development of a country brand in people’s mind is similar to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Once there are enough pieces, people may start to recognize the picture that the jigsaw puzzle aims to create. Only a part of the brand contacts comes from the planned communication, but it is important to acknowledge that not all the brand contacts are equally influential in brand building. The importance of planned communication is typically less than word-of-mouth. In the puzzle metaphor, this means some pieces of the puzzle are bigger than others. 

The minimum time for a country to reshape or build a country brand is 15 to 20 years.
To what extent does an image that a country projects correlate with the level of foreign investment in that country?

Despite the fact the foreign investors have more rational approach to perceiving one’s country reputation than for example tourists, they are still at least unconsciously affected by the overall image a country brand is associated with. Economic and political stability, laws and regulations, the level of corruption, the tax system, are some of the crucial factors in the decision-making process of all investors. However, when key similarities between countries appear, other elements of a country brand prevail in making the final decision.
How long will Serbia take to change its image as a bad guy, and how can this be achieved? 

To change a country’s image is not simple at all. In our case it is even more complicated and difficult. We have to be aware that our problem is not primarily one of communication, in which the country simply has to get better at telling the world its story. It is past and current perceived behavior that created our reputation. One of the most damaging effects of the Milošević government was the way in which it destroyed the country’s reputation. The Milošević regime managed to destroy Serbia’s image in just one decade and made it one of the most hated and unpopular nations in the world. This was greater damage than all the economic and political hardships people had to face during his time. 

Despite everything, we can make surprising turnaround in the story as long as there is a clear strategy for doing so – visionary leadership and proper coordination between government, the public and private sector and the community. The desired image of the country needs to be in some credible way connected to its current reputation, or else the task becomes unfeasible. Existing perception is what gives a country permission to start a dialogue with people in other places and attempt to build on these, gradually leading public perceptions in a new direction. 

My advice is not to spend huge amounts of money on conventional marketing, because the money is usually better spent on genuine improvements to the country, which will also have a more powerful, more credible and longer-lasting effect on its reputation. So the first motto for the country-branding project should be Actions speak louder than words’, and the second motto should be ’Don’t talk unless you have something to say’. 

To change a country brand image, it’s very important how its population perceive the nation brand because this is a powerful driver of the external image. When the entire population is galvanized into becoming the mouthpiece of a country’s values and qualities, then you have an advertising medium that is actually equal to the enormous task of communicating something so complex to so many. 

Can culture be a powerful tool in building Serbia Brand? 

Culture is a more eloquent communicator of national image than commercial brands, even if it does work more slowly. Culture also works in many different ways as a metaphor for country brand personality, and people deduce a great deal about the inner qualities of a nation through its cultural enterprises. The cultural aspect of national image is irreplaceable and uncopiable because it is uniquely linked to the country itself. Culture can often play a critical role in moving the current image of a country towards a more useful one. 

If we summarize the key elements in country branding, what would they be? 

Get to know your audience, get to know your competition and get to know your own country!